Connected Learning Works: Taking a Sabbatical from the Noise

I want to warn everyone about this thing going around called “connected learning.” It’s dangerous.

Each year the MacArthur Foundation and National Writing Project support ten schools through the Educator Innovator Challenge to pursue how education can look differently. John Legend is a supporter of this project and a major pioneer in the idea of encouraging businesses to connect with what is going on inside the classroom, so students (especially ones who lack certain networks) can be linked from their classroom to a career that allows them to pursue what they’re good at and what they love. That’s connected learning, by the way.

If we’re trying to connect teenagers, that implies that the inherent problem is that teenagers today are disconnected—which is true. Young people in the United States, as it turns out, have been identified as the loneliest generation to ever walk this Earth. A big part of being a teacher today means spending your evenings scanning the internet for ways to make lessons or projects more engaging and to find ways to connect the learning in the classroom to the mysterious teenage psyche.

In the spring of 2017, Knowledge Academies in Antioch, Tennessee was one of the schools to answer that challenge, specifically asking, “What if learning could take place without classroom walls and bells?”

What we did

Our solution was to differ the question to the students themselves, asking them, “What are you passionate about and how can that passion help transform our community?” Once students had an answer to that question, they could take part in a mini-sabbatical, a break away from the daily grind to try out those interests with a group of their peers and teachers.  We called them Social Innovation Leadership Sabbaticals—a clunky name that unsurprisingly didn’t catch on with middle and high schoolers.

At the beginning of the year, we polled a sample of middle school students to determine what the initial approach would be, asking them what they wish they could do at school if there were no limits. We heard a common response: “I just want to go outside more.”

Even being an outdoors enthusiast, at first this bothered me. When we had received notice of our participation in the Educator Innovator challenge, in my heart I was excited to find the most innovative curriculum and technological improvements to implement at our school. Because that’s where your mind immediately goes when you’re challenged to be an innovator! “Going outside more” isn’t exactly a buzz word associated with innovation.

Then a co-worker gave me a wise piece of advice: “Lean into that. Listen to them.”

So each of the student-directed projects gradually developed around that theme of going outside.

For our first sabbatical, our students planted, managed, and sold a crop of 4,000 pumpkin plants. Had any of them, including the teachers who helped, ever done that before? No—which was perfect because everyone had to learn as they went. We ended up with a couple thousand dollars in sales, but also lot of rotten pumpkins. The former has funded other crazy ideas and the latter taught us things about agriculture and local food systems that we didn’t know.

For our next sabbatical, a group of twenty 7th and 8th graders spent three days at the Tremont Institute in the Great Smokey Mountains. Tremont is an amazing place that brings students into ongoing citizen science research projects and educates them in active, hands-on learning pedagogical styles. It’s simple, engaging, effective, and unpretentious. Students will spend just as much time overturning rocks looking for salamanders as they will hearing a lecture or taking notes.

Our third sabbatical built on this learning and connected our students to 600 acre tract of land the city of Nashville had recently purchased. For the entire month of May, our 8th grade students visited this land, collected research and discussed ideas for how the park could be used for their community. We shamelessly took lessons learned at Tremont and applied them in our home context.

We went big for our final sabbatical. Hearing that many teenagers are interested in future careers as Youtube stars or influencers, we created our own Youtube series based on one of the longest running reality shows (CBS’ Survivor). For three days a group of 23 students were the castaways—who competed in challenges and formed alliances with peers they had otherwise not known on this level. To capture the experience, we had half a dozen members of our audio/visual class come participate as the camera crew. The experience is here on Youtube (It’s amazing; you should really check it out).


Because I received the Educator Innovator grant, I am supposed to provide you all with some anecdotal resources, discovered during our journey of exploring connected learning over the past year.

Here’s the first anecdote I’d like to share: teenagers want (and need) to connect with you.

I’ve enjoyed a number of different reactions from people when I tell them about what we’ve been up to with these projects. My favorite is, “But the liabilities behind that?! There are too many dangers associated with activities like this!”

But are they really? Are the risks and dangers too great to pursue this kind of work?

Remember: these are things the students told us they wanted to do. Remember: this is loneliest, most disconnected generation to ever walk the face of this planet. Remember: anxiety levels in teenagers today are through the roof and suicide is now the leading cause of death for teenagers (If you didn’t know that, now you do).

So what are the real risks and dangers associated with connected learning?

What I’ve realized from this process is that the real risk, the real danger, is not getting to know each student on a personal level.

But like I said at the beginning of this article, they are right: it is dangerous to connect. If you connect, you can’t just responsibly disconnect. Once you see what your students go through, once you connect your world to theirs, your world changes too.

It will change the way you teach moving forward. It will make you angrier at the over-emphasis on the testing industry and the under-emphasis on the actual needs of the young people in our care. You might even find yourself having these students over to your house for dinner on a Friday night.

Our work has been very well received as I’ve shared it with others over the past year. “Innovative” and “Inspiring” are two words I hear a lot.

That strikes me as a bit silly now. When did encouraging students to play in the creek and study salamanders become inspirational? When did allowing students to go camping, cook food, set fires, and talk life become innovative? What have we lost as a society that these are not normal things you can expect from a child’s experience at school?

That’s my second anecdotal resource. Your students, no matter their age, want (and need) time to play and learn outside.

Our Educator Innovator project was to give teachers and students “sabbaticals” to explore whatever they wanted, without the constraints of a schedule.

At first I was confused, when we asked our students what they wanted most, that the common answer was: “we just want to play outside more”.

Often we try to reconnect them by tweaking the curriculum or including sexier technology.  

Don’t get me wrong—I was totally that guy once. I thought a 3D printer was the missing link to take our learning to the next level. And, yes, 3D printers are cool: they capture teen’s attention and energy. They help them focus for a few amazing class periods. Then it becomes another toy they grow bored with. Or,  it becomes another gimmick that competes for their attention and creates noise in their lives.

The pumpkins we grew were just a gimmick too; not the main focus. The outdoors are just the context for listening and learning without the extra noise. Research backs this is the most common sense adjustment for increasing the well-being of our kids.

And so here’s my third and, for me, what was my most dangerous anecdote to walk away with: “Lean into that. Listen to them.”

My co-worker was right. They don’t want your programs, they don’t want your life lessons, and they definitely care very little about your curriculum pacing guide. Whatever it is that schools are going to chase this year, it’s going to be a fad and that too will fade with students paying very little interest.

My advice for educators trying connected learning is to not try to program your students. Listen to what their needs and their interests are, let them pursue that with joy and failure, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly the barriers come down.

To be innovative is to see problems where nobody else sees them.

What if the problem is that we are too busy chasing sexy programs, technologies, curriculums, and agendas that we can’t see the deep needs our students have?

Students want to connect. They want to be known. They want to belong.

Connected learning doesn’t just aim for connection to the corporate world either. If learning is going to happen in its most humane way, we’re going to need to thicken the web to include every aspect of the child’s life. Connected learning involves the place of worship, the restaurant, the neighborhood park. It involves the living rooms and kitchen tables of people who care.

When we took our trips to the outdoors, and students had to set down their devices and weren’t forced to follow a schedule, the dissonant white noise ended. The teenagers were ready to connect with each other and with a greater purpose we had designed together.

The question is: are we willing to do the same, or is it too dangerous?